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On many farms, cats play an important role in keeping the rodent population down, making them a welcome companion. But what happens when they become too much to manage?

Kathryn McGonigle of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine and Dr. Nancy A. Dreschel of Penn State agree that an out-of-control cat population results when farmers are unable to provide the clowder, or a group of cats, with humane health care.

“Farmers who keep cats are kind people who allow the cats to stay on their property,” McGonigle said.

But managing cats can be difficult, especially when some are untamed and keep their distance from humans. Outdoor and barn cats can often be exposed to diseases such as feline leukemia, toxoplasmosis and feline immune virus.

According to Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, the first clinical signs of a cat with feline leukemia are a poor coat and enlarged lymph nodes, while cats with feline immune virus will lose weight and show signs of fever. Cats that have the immune virus are also more lethargic, McGonigle said.

Feline leukemia is often spread through the act of mutual grooming, while the immune virus is transmitted through bites, she said.

Farmers can decrease their farm cats’ risk of disease by providing them a clean area to sleep and eat, and access to fresh water. Cats are agile creatures and will sleep in areas that are clean and elevated, McGonigle said. Outdoor cats should also be treated for heartworm, fleas and ticks and they should also be considered for rabies and other mandated vaccines from a veterinarian.

Overall, “cats need a nice place to do their resting and eating,” McGonigle said.

“It’s important that cats get vaccinated, for everyone’s safety,” Dreschel added.

Another method farmers can use in managing cat populations is participating in trap-neuter-release programs. Spaying and neutering cats creates more stable populations, and they are easier to keep an eye on and they do not fight as much, said Dreschel. One of the interesting behavioral patterns that spayed and neutered cats show is defense. Spayed and neutered cats are territorial and keep non-spayed and neutered cats away from their area. However, if a farm is located near a public highway, Dreschel is unsure if a cat abandoned there would be discouraged from the premises by the farm-established cluster of spayed and neutered cats.

The first step is just “reaching out and making that first call,” Dreschel said. She advises that farmers look to their local animal control, rescue group or a veterinarian who can assist with low-cost spaying and neutering. In central Pennsylvania, the Hundred Cat Foundation and the Allegheny Spay and Neuter Clinic can assist residents within the area through programs such as TNR and spay/neuter vouchers program, which helps cover the costs of spaying, neutering and vaccines, she said.

“The people who do TNR have it down to a science,” Dreschel said. It might also take a farm a year or two to get their cat population under control, she said.

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Special Sections Editor

Courtney Love is Special Sections Editor at Lancaster Farming. She can be reached at 717-721-4426 or clove@lancasterfarming.com